Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often assured the international community that he supports the principle of the Palestinians establishing an independent state as a result of direct negotiations. Why then did he react so violently to last week’s Palestinian application to join 15 United Nations (UN) organisations as a member state?
Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas first used the ‘threat’ of these accessions — which would see Palestine accepted and endorsed as an independent, recognised state on the international stage — a year ago. He withdrew them as a gesture of goodwill in the hope that the peace process would eventually bear fruit. Last week, angered by Israel’s intransigence on colonies and its failure to release the fourth and final batch of 26 prisoners previously agreed upon, Abbas signed the relevant UN application documents live on television.
The Israelis responded with furious threats to ‘retaliate’ and impose ‘endless sanctions’ on the Palestinians; the US Senate also panicked and under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby passed emergency legislation allowing the US to ‘de-fund’ any UN organisation that accepts Palestine as a member. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power described the move as “something that poses a profound threat to Israel”. Abbas has not yet applied to sign the Treaty of Rome which governs the International Criminal Court (ICC) where the Palestinians could — and have threatened to — seek the prosecution of Israeli leaders for war crimes. This is the ace Abbas holds up his sleeve, but how likely is he to use it?
Since the US and Israel effectively control the PNA’s purse strings, and Abbas has 160,000 people on his payroll, the flame of his anger has usually been extinguished by financial imperatives. The Palestinian negotiating position is further compromised by an increasing number of other problems.
First, internal factionalism and disunity. Prospects for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas have been seriously affected by the political sea-change in Egypt. In 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood’s president Mohammad Mursi hosted Fatah and Hamas delegations in Cairo, intent on bringing the warring factions together. This did not go down well in Washington, where a special Foreign Affairs committee was convened to discuss the ‘threat to the peace talks... Fatah and Hamas uniting in their hatred of Israel’ would pose. When Mursi was toppled four months later, the military regime in Cairo turned its guns on the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot, Hamas.
With the Brotherhood already designated a ‘terrorist entity’ in much of the Arab world, a Cairo court last month banned Hamas from Egypt and confiscated its offices. One of the charges against Mursi is his ‘collaboration’ with Hamas. Palestinians fear that this crackdown will be used to tighten the blockade of the Gaza strip. The Rafah border post has only been opened for four days of the past fifty. Meanwhile, although he may have privately rejoiced at the fall of Mursi (because of the concomitant weakening of Hamas), Abbas cannot himself rely on support from the military regime in Egypt. A split at the heart of Fatah itself is further weakening the Palestinian side ahead of John Kerry’s April 29 peace talks deadline.
Abbas and his arch rival, Mohammad Dahlan — the former Fatah leader in Gaza, currently in exile — have been trading insults. Abbas has revived his allegations that Dahlan, who maintains close ties with Mossad, helped Israel to assassinate Yasser Arafat and has threatened to expel him from Fatah. Dahlan reminds Abbas that his electoral mandate ran out five years ago. Dahlan, 52, seems to be planning a comeback. Egypt has been active in this aspect of Palestinian politics too, with the private media offering Dahlan generous space to get his message across.
Sources told me that Egyptian Defence Minister and Presidential candidate Abdul Fattah Al Sissi has been urging Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan whom he welcomed in Cairo some days ago, assuring him of his support should he run for President of the PNA. Al Sissi would like to see a strengthened, re-united Fatah, supported by Egypt, facing off Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas-Fatah reconciliation has never looked less likely, but any future state of Palestine will need to be a state for all, under a government of national unity,
If the Kerry deadline comes and goes with nothing having been achieved on the Palestinian side, Abbas will find it even harder to keep Fatah’s increasingly divided factions together and his, already diminished, credibility will crumble.
Surge in colony building
The Palestinians also find themselves largely abandoned by fellow Arab countries. At last week’s Arab League ministerial gathering, Abbas sought support for Palestinian demands, but so far members seem more exercised over whether the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) or the Al Assad regime should occupy Syria’s seat at the meeting.
Nor does Israel seem likely to give way on any major issues in the absence of real pressure from the US. Colonies building has not only continued, but surged, in the course of this latest round of peace talks. Even Israel’s chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, accused the Ministry of Housing of ‘torpedoing’ her efforts.
In the absence of a suitably robust response, Abbas weakens his position and demeans the Palestinians. Equally demeaning was the recently mooted arrangement under the prisoner exchange plan to effectively swap the leader of the 1987 intifada, Marwan Bargouti — whom many consider a hero and a Palestinian version of Nelson Mandela — for Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard who is in jail in the US serving the 29th year of a life sentence. As the window within which John Kerry hoped to do so much begins to close, the Palestine-Israel file has become even more complicated and difficult.
Netanyahu does not need to remind us of his position that a Palestinian state can only come through negotiations. It is a painful fact that the Palestinians have been pursuing the mirage of peace talks that produce results for the past 20 years.
There is always the possibility that the deadline could be extended, but in the absence of real political will — not only from Israel but also from the community of Arab countries — it is difficult to see what purpose would be served by prolonging this agony. If the talks fail, as most commentators expect, it is possible that Israel will annexe its illegal colonies in the West Bank, reducing the shrinking amount of land left for a Palestinian state still further. Equally possible is an escalation of violence, on both sides, possibly leading to a third intifada.
In retrospect, it is clear that not an inch of Palestinian territory has been regained except by fighting for it, with all the sacrifice of blood and lives that entails. Sharon withdrew Israel’s illegal colonies from Gaza in 2005 following worsening human and material losses; Ehud Barack withdrew from South Lebanon in 2006 for the same reason.
The vicious circle of endless negotiations, kept in play by Washington and Tel Aviv, traps the Palestinians in a state of impotence and paralysis.
There is some hope that the burgeoning international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel may, ultimately, oblige them to play fair. Until that happens, Abbas should withdraw from the negotiations and announce the end of the peace process.
This article is the first of a two-part series on the Middle East peace process.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum
You can follow him on Twitter at @abdelbariatwan